Baja Fresh's menu describes it as "next to Starbucks." It is not. It is next to my dentist. Who does not believe in pain. Whose dental technicians therefore provide laughing gas even for routine cleanings. Whose dental technicians, I therefore figured, must've been testing the tank themselves when they began raving about the fabulous fare at this new self-described "Mexican Grill" -- which looks clean and bright but, let's face it, is about as gourmet as a Taco Bell.
Surprise! Baja Fresh is indeed part of a nationwide chain, albeit a modestly sized one; the California-based franchise has about 150 outlets. But there the similarity to average fast-food-chain eateries ends. Food does come fairly fast, but not instantaneously because it's made to order. And you can taste the truth in the menu's claims of "no microwaves, no can openers, no freezers." Everything from seafood to the four house-made-daily salsas (mild green tomatillo, dark and rich medium-hot "Salsa Baja," hot and heavily smoky red chipotle, and chunky tomato/onion pico de gallo) on a side salsa bar seem sparkling fresh. Noncarnivores and healthy eaters will also be happy to hear that neither lard nor MSG is used, with no compromise in the food's intense flavors.
There's a full range of Cal-Mex stuff at Baja, including some very tasty tacos stuffed with charbroiled choice-grade steak slices, marinated chicken (which was pretty impressively moist, considering that it was skinless breast meat), and, best, perfectly grilled -- as opposed to the usual overly grilled -- gulf shrimp. There's also my dental tech's favorite, the Burrito Ultimo. Items with this type of "superduperwhizbangiest ever!" moniker generally are sloppy, gloppy monsters with little going for them but ingredient overkill, but this Ultimo, though truly a full meal in a flour tortilla, is a tasty and manageable mélange of al dente rice (held together by melted cheddar and jack), grilled onions and peppers, sour cream, and a choice of steak, chicken, or -- though not noted on the menu -- those aforementioned shrimp.
220 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
305-442-9596. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Signature item at Baja Fresh, though, is the Baja fish taco. Anyone who's driven down this long, skinny peninsular part of Mexico knows that the shore road is lined with hundreds of little stands selling homemade tacos stuffed with the condiment-garnished catch of the day (commonly red snapper or mahi-mahi). The original stand? Hah. But most agree that the Baja fish taco migrated to southern California courtesy of former slacker/surfer/San Diego State student-turned-restaurateur Ralph Rubio, in about 1983. From southern California, the fish taco craze slowly spread across the nation. The taco, however, is usually done inaccurately.
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Baja Fresh gets it right. Well, except for the fish used: characterless tilapia, fish of choice for those who dislike fish. But the juicy battered fish strips are fresh, as is the soft corn tortilla wrapper; at Baja's beach stands, you may encounter grilled rather than fried fish, but never hard-shelled tacos. And, most important, the unique condiments are correct: not the traditional tomato/lettuce/hot sauce garnish of meat or bean tacos but shredded cabbage and a tangy dairy-based vinaigrette made from Mexican crema (similar to thinned crème fraîche) and lime juice, plus pico de gallo. Cabbage may sound weird, but think about how well coleslaw cuts the grease of batter-fried fish. Then think about how much more effective a freshly sauced cabbage, rather than strips limp from long marination in coleslaw dressing, might be. Is. Honest, my smiles on the last two visits were totally uninfluenced by laughing gas.